In Defense of D&D Third Edition

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I recently saw a meme that surprised me. It had a picture of every version of Dungeons & Dragons and it rated them by the Star Wars movies they most resembled in terms of quality. What shocked me was that third edition was listed with The Phantom Menace, the often maligned, “worst of the Star Wars saga.” Since seeing that meme, I’ve noticed a number of other people criticizing this version of the game. I was particularly surprised by this because when third edition was released, it was widely praised by players, critics, and gaming community at large. And also, on a personal note, it remains my favorite edition.

Thus I feel compelled to express why I feel this version of the game is so good, and hopefully regain in some people an appreciation, or at least a level of respect, for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition.

At the turn of the 21st century, there was renewed interest in fantasy. Special effects in movies had reached a point where other worlds could be accurately portrayed, and Lord of the Rings was reaching the big screen. The direct result of all this was that mainstream culture was embracing the fantasy genre more than ever. It was fitting that a new edition of the classic RPG came out. Wizards of the Coast had made a big splash recently with their popular card game Magic: The Gathering. They were the perfect pick for the reboot of D&D.

When I first saw it in a local store, I noticed two things off the bat. First, the cover artwork didn’t have any mighty warriors clashing with fierce monsters, or demonic temples with flames engulfing doomed souls. It was a simple design that resembled an ancient, locked tome with a bronze crest in the center surrounded by jewels. I had grown weary of the overbearing artwork from Games Workshop that portrayed screaming warriors wielding weapons three times larger than them. This new, modest look intrigued me.

Peering inside, the artwork looked like it had come out of Leonardo DaVinci’s workshop. Chapter openings had yellowed pages with design sketches of people and items rather than over-the-top battles. Characters and locations looked like they were part of real societies rather than cartoonish fantasies. For the first time, I felt like I was looking at a D&D book made by Tolkien rather than a Saturday morning cartoon; and they were inspiring the idea of worlds for characters to live in rather than just kill monsters.

Something else I noticed as well that would become important; women weren’t wearing bikini armor as they had been in so much of the artwork before. This may seem like a small detail, but what it was doing was it was inviting women into the hobby more than ever before. And it worked. More women play these games today than ever before, and that’s in a large part due to the artwork that began with Wizards of the Coast games.

I dove into the rules and was assisted by a CD that came with the book which aided players in creating characters. People have criticized how long it takes to make a character in third edition, which I didn’t understand for a long time because I always used the disk, from which I was able to create characters in less than five minutes. As for when I have to make characters without the aid of a disk, it never bothers me. If I’m going to be spending years with a character, I don’t mind spending a bit more time creating it.

The biggest issue for many people has been balance between classes. My response to that is simple; if you’re more concerned with every character being equal in a fight, you’re not looking for a roleplaying game; you’re looking for a battle game, and there are plenty of those. Third edition rightly focused on creating interesting characters of diverse talents. If your bard isn’t as good in a fight as a barbarian, guess what? He’s a bard! His time to shine is in social situations, not combat.

The game mechanics at the time were revolutionary. It was called the D20 System, and it hit the industry by storm. It streamlined a lot of concepts that had players needing to memorize what dice to use and whether to add or subtract numbers. This used a D20 most of the time and let players add for positive things, and subtract for negative things. I was at GAMA the year it came out, and everyone was talking about the new system. There were entire panels dedicated to it, and how simplifying the game systems would attract new players. And it did, bringing RPGs into the mainstream.

Most ingenious, however, was the open license. By allowing anyone to use the D20 system and to make D&D products there were hundreds of innovations that became available.  Companies like Green Ronin, Mongoose Publishing, and AEG created products for it. Fantasy Flight did some of its earliest work in Third Edition. As such, the variety a GM had available was unmatched. Players had more power classes they could branch into, more treasures they could find, and more concepts to explore that came from everywhere, not just the company that made the game.

So you go ahead with new versions of D&D. I’ll stick with my third edition, which was built up by people all over the world, and which spread out the hobby more than ever to a whole new generation of gamers.

What is your favorite edition of Dungeons & Dragons and why? Tell us in comments.

Image credits: Wizards of the Coast

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